Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/2/20 –
Jimmy Steinfeldt: Michael how often do you clean your lens?
Michael Childers: My lens is always dirty. I’m not doing much photography these days, though I do have a shoot coming up next month. I did it for 52 years and to really be in the game you have to be in L.A. or New York, and I like living here in Palm Springs. With my archive, I have exhibits in the U.S. and around the world. I love doing the exhibits and lecturing. I’ve got my Rockin’ Hollywood exhibit now at the Palm Springs Cultural Center and we also did it 12 years ago on the Queen Mary and 140,000 people saw that show. They built the gallery for my exhibit.
JS: Who were the photographers who influenced you?
MC: Richard Avedon. I had his photos all over my walls when I was a teenager. Irving Penn, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, David Bailey, Cartier-Bresson, all of whom I got to meet because I was living in London with my partner John Schlesinger while working part-time at the London Times photo studio. I got to meet Cecil Beaton at English Vogue. He was a grand old difficult queen. I was hoping to photograph him at his great country house, which never happened.
I’d rather meet these great photographers than movie stars. I learned so much from observing the great photographers. While I was in New York I learned how to be quick and organized doing fashion. I worked on a session with Arthur Elgort, the fashion photographer. I learned a lot about movement from him.
My early passion was doing dance photography. The fist nude musical was called Oh, Calcutta!. I ran all 52 projectors and got great reviews in The New York Times. I worked with the American Ballet, Alvin Nicolai, and the Bejart Ballet and I did a book of photographs called Them. Dance is sort of like doing rock n’ roll photography you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s about movement. Also I did photos of Elton John during the Honky Chateau period. Next, through Elton’s manager, I got to do Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, and Dusty Springfield.
I also worked at the National Theater of Great Britain for Sir Laurence Olivier. Ken Tynan was the dramaturge at the National Theater and to this day, I am the only American photographer that ever worked there. That was great training. Stage lighting is very difficult and spotty, and also a great challenge to seize the moment of the importance of the scene. Because of my knowledge of portraiture, I was also given special assignments to do Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, Coral Browne, Eileen Atkins, John Gielgud and Paul Scofield, as well as the “young kids” like Anthony Hopkins and Alan Bates.
I discovered photography first in high school. Then in college at UCLA I studied with Robert Heinecken and learned darkroom. I actually was a film major. Everyone wants to be Fellini, Coppola, or Scorsese. Everyone wants to be a director. I didn’t want the responsibility. I wanted to be free. I would have loved to have been a cinematographer.
JS: Who are some of your favorite cinematographers?
MC: Roger Deakins, who did 1917 and also the Coen Bros films. Every shot, amazing. Also Vittorio Storaro who did The Conformist which I think is one of the five greatest films of all time. I worked twice with the brilliant Conrad Hall, on Day of the Locust and Marathon Man. Gregg Toland is another. I didn’t know him, but I met his son Tim at UCLA. Tim took me to his house and asked if I wanted to see some of his dad’s still photos. Of course, I said yes. He took me to his garage and showed me boxes and boxes of his father’s still photos including his notebooks and drawings on how to film Citizen Kane and The Best Years of our Lives. I said what are these doing in a damp garage? I called the UCLA film library and asked if they had funds to buy the collection because I knew Tim’s mother needed money. UCLA bought the collection. Also James Wong Howe was one of my teachers at UCLA. I worship at the throne of the great cinematographers and these people must be paid respect.
JS: My favorite cinematographer is Karl Freund.
MC: Oh yes, Metropolis, Key Largo, Dracula, I Love Lucy.
JS: Tell me about doing film stills.
MC: I’ve worked on nearly 100 movies in what we used to call “special photography.” The PR department would send a well-known photographer, who they trusted, to go work with the greatest movie stars. These were assignments done all over the world. 85% of the actors were cooperative but sometimes you’d have to grab what shots you could like with Sean Penn, Linda Hamilton and Raquel Welch, who were my most challenging subjects. The budgets allowed me to go to Egypt, Morocco, Japan, etc. I went to Manila to work on The Year of Living Dangerously. My theater and dance training photography came in very handy. I knew how to work fast and get what I wanted. I had fun, but they don’t do this anymore. Now they do body-double shots and drop in the head of the star for the poster. You don’t get anything organic that way.
JS: You must have been young when you worked on Midnight Cowboy?
MC: I was 24. I met John Schlesinger in L.A. and he asked if I’d like to come to New York and work on the movie a bit, and take some pictures. I wanted to be more than that. I wanted to be a production assistant. I ended up doing location scouting in Texas. I drove around for a week with Jon Voight. Jon had a tape recorder recording voices to learn the Texas accent. I got to contribute to the movie because I knew Paul Morrissey, and the Andy Warhol superstars Joe Dallesandro, Viva, and others. I met them at Max’s Kansas City. I said to John Schlesinger that the script had a party scene in Greenwich Village so I suggested we turn it into a Warhol loft party. That’s what we did. We had the sets built. I brought John down to meet Andy Warhol. Andy was supposed to be in the movie but he was shot and almost killed the week before. We had Taylor Mead, International Velvet, Dallesandro, and Morrissey all in the party sequence. Some of that was shot in my darkroom when Jon Voight goes off with Brenda Vaccaro. All my prints are floating in the sink while Jon and Brenda are stoned on marijuana and start making love. This was shot with the red light and the cinematographer Adam Holender was fantastic. I’m also in the party sequence. I’m running a film projector with a film I made with Paul Morrissey.
Also Grease 2 was a big film for me. I love working on Hollywood musicals. My favorite one was Pennies from Heaven with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. Bob Mackie costumes—oh my god! An unlimited budget and 80 show girls. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven in a Fred Astaire movie. I love the scene when Christopher Walken does a tap dance number on top of a bar. I have a photo of him dancing and throwing a hat. Walken was a trained dancer. Steve Martin’s feet were bleeding and he said it was so hard to learn the dance. Bernadette Peters was a total pro, and she was a great subject photographically.
James Cameron is a bloody genius. I’ve worked on over 100 movies and I can figure out in 30 minutes if a director is an idiot or third rate or mind-blowingly talented. Cameron was brilliant. On The Terminator in addition to directing, Cameron could do anything. I watched him operate the camera, set up lighting and compose shots. It was just thrilling. I went home and told John Schlesinger “I just worked with the most amazing new director named James Cameron, I think he’s really going to go places.” I just adore Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s so funny. I did Pumping Iron, Stay Hungry, Conan The Barbarian, and, of course, The Terminator. In the early days Arnold would ask for me.
JS: Do you know the photographer Peter Sorel who I’ve also interviewed?
MC: Yes, of course! We worked on many movies together. He was doing unit photography and he’s one of the best that ever worked in that.
JS: Is there anyone you haven’t photographed that you wished you had?
MC: There were two that got away, but at least I got to meet them. Number one is Audrey Hepburn. I had dinner at her house with John Schlesinger. I wanted to photograph her so much. Also Grace Kelly. I got to meet her in Monaco when I was traveling with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. Grace had no bad angles.
JS: Tell me about some of the photos I see on the walls in your beautiful home.
MS: About 70 percent of the photos are mine and the rest are photographs I’ve collected of photographers I admire. I used to have a much bigger collection. I’ve donated many of those prints to the Palm Springs Art Museum, and to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Some of the photos you see on the wall include works by Mary Ellen Mark, Greg Gorman, Herb Ritts, Wynn Bullock, Eve Arnold, Cecil Beaton, Bill Brandt, Victor Skrebneski, and Douglas Kirkland.
JS: Tell me about photographing Groucho Marx.
MC: I got him on his 85th birthday just before he passed. He was very funny. He came out dressed in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. I loved getting the legends. I just caught the end of the golden era of Hollywood with stars like Mae West, and Vincent Price.
JS: I feel the same way. When I started I wanted to photograph all the old time music legends because I knew they wouldn’t be around too long. Sinatra, John Lee Hooker, Les Paul, Cab Calloway, and others.
MC: Cab’s daughter Chris Calloway was in three of my shows. She did the Hi-De-Ho number and was terrific.
JS: What was your first camera?
JS: That was my first camera!
MC: How about that? My father brought it back from Japan when I was 14. I did photos for the high school yearbook and I also photographed my friends. Then I went to UCLA and upgraded to Nikon which I used for 30-40 years. Later I changed to Canon. During my first studio work I used Hasselblad cameras. My favorite camera was the Mamiya 6×7. I loved that big negative. I worked with 4×5, I even had the torture of shooting 8×10 film for the poster for the film Siesta with Ellen Barkin. It was difficult but we won the National Art Directors award for best film poster.
I loved that I had to print in the old days. You can’t be a great photographer without knowing the qualities of a great print and how to make one. I learned so much in the darkroom. How to print, composition, highlights, lowlights, the zone thing. You learn how to make a print more dramatic. You can do that somewhat with Photoshop now. Also the papers are getting so good. You hold a silver gelatin print next to these new papers and you can’t tell the difference. I think digital now is sharper than film. There are cameras that now have 500 megapixels. But darkroom was a great way to learn. Kids today take a photo with their iPhone—click click click click—I want to tell them stop! What does your eye see? Consider the composition!
There are some great art and photography schools now, but god knows what the graduates are going to do for a living. The era when I was working and Douglas Kirkland’s wife Francoise was my manager, as well as the brilliant Marysa Maslansky, we had great creative assignments and they paid big money! My friend Herb Ritts was getting $50,000 a day. Greg Gorman was getting $25,000 or more. Those days are ended. I feel sorry for the young photographers because they are not only missing the bang of creativity that happened back then but they are also missing the money.
Today it’s all about getting it fast and cheap. I guess there are photographers who are well paid for photographing cars and things like that. My friend Richard Noble, the advertising photographer, retired to a castle in Ireland he made so much money doing car and cigarette ads. What is the future? Magazines are disappearing.
JS: There are fewer and fewer magazines, but Michael, you can speak to one of the all time great magazines—Interview.
MC: I was working for a magazine called After Dark around 1968/69. It was the hot magazine in New York. It had all the new theater and film people and they loved my work. I saw Andy Warhol at a party one night and he said to me “Michael I’m thinking about starting a magazine and I want you to come along because you take such beautiful pictures.” I said “What exactly do you want?” Andy said “Oh I want everyone to be beautiful people, and rich people, and if they’re beautiful and rich I’ll give you more pages.” I said, “Are you going to pay?” He was shocked, of course he didn’t pay, he was cheap. But Interview was a springboard to lots of other work. Also it allowed me to go in the backdoor at Studio 54 with all the cool people like Bianca Jagger, Lisa Taylor, Marisa Berenson, Ingrid Boulting, Lois Chiles, Lonette McKee, and Jerry Hall. I did Jerry’s first pictures when she arrived in New York.
Andy was an enigma, he didn’t have a great personality, he was a voyeur. He would just look and see everything around him and suck the blood out of people and use them in his work. He was brilliant at that. If I had known he was going to become the most famous artist in the world I would have done more photographs of him. I photographed him several times in New York at his studio. Also the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh says I’m the only one to have photographed him at his house in Paris. The loot of the world was there. Antiques and more. He was a great collector. He would go shopping with four people and three limousines. Two of them just to put the loot in. He didn’t want photographs of his Paris apartment to ever be published. He didn’t want the IRS to know he had a $2 million apartment in Paris. I did lots of wonderful photos of him—very ghost like with white sheets. Andy was always photographed with white makeup to cover up his bad complexion.
JS: Speaking of Interview, I got to know Bob Colacello back in the 1980s when I was contributing to various magazines located in New York and elsewhere.
MC: He’s a great writer and editor.
JS: What camera would you use today if you were out shooting?
MC: Sony has some great cameras. I go to the camera store (Camera West) about every four months and drool, though I’m also shocked at the prices. The new Hasselblad digital 250 megapixel camera is only $26,000—I think I’ll run out and get one tomorrow (laughs). I still have my Canons and I will also rent equipment. I’ve got Profoto equipment, and I also love working with Tungsten lighting.
JS: We’re filming this interview with my Leica.
MC: I still have my Leica film camera. Mary Ellen Mark taught me how to load the camera because they are difficult to load. She only worked with Leica. Also Eve Arnold worked with Leica. They knew Tri-X, and Kodachrome film so well they could chose the correct aperture without a light meter. Somehow Henri Cartier-Bresson was able to load and shoot day or night in the streets of Paris with his Leica and get the decisive moment .
JS: I find Hasselblad difficult to load.
MC: When I started in New York, that’s what I did for the photographers I worked for. I could load a Hasselblad in the dark no problem. However, once in a while I would make a mistake, and I’d tell the photographer I’m not sure I loaded that last roll properly. They’d get mad, but would thank me for letting them know so they could reshoot those dozen or so shots.
JS: Was there ever a camera that you wanted but never got?
MC: My next camera! But seriously I’ll ask my friend Greg Gorman what he suggests. He’s a master technician, a terrific photographer. All my printing equipment that I have was recommended by Greg.
JS: What was the change like for you from film to digital?
MC: I fought it. I said “Surely this is not going to happen.” I had found the most wonderful printer in my life. He was working at A&I and his name was Michel Karmen and he was a master printer from Paris. He did prints for Helmut Newton, Greg Gorman and Herb Ritts. He did the most beautiful printing. Also I was in the middle of finishing two of my books and my assistants said “Michael the future is digital.” I said “Oh, that will never happen, not for the next ten years.” Well, it happened overnight. So I learned how to do Photoshop. It’s the digital age but film still has a piece of my heart.
JS: Tell me about your legendary photography studios.
MC: My first studio was on Melrose, just an abandoned storefront. I had every movie star in town in limos waiting out front. Los Angeles Magazine did a story called Hollywood after Hurrell and it was about the upcoming star photographers in town and I was one of them. George Hurrell often used my studio on Melrose because we had the same agent Marysa Maslansky. George and I became great friends. I even traded him once. I let him use my studio in exchange for him taking my photo in the 1930s style. My studio was all black and he loved that. I liked controlling the light and I didn’t like bounce. I wanted spotlights and George loved that. Today 95% of the studios are all white. Later on came my studios in Venice California, and in New York. My last studio was on Hollywood Blvd at Gower and it was the best-designed and most beautiful studio I ever had.
JS: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to make a career in photography?
MC: Persevere. Don’t do anything safe. Keep pushing your vision. Do something astonishing. Create photographs unlike anything seen before. Diana Vreeland said “Astonish me.” Today the new photographers in English and Italian Vogue have great vision. I have to say I hate looking at photographs online, I want to touch them in print.
JS: What’s next for Michael Childers?
MC: To finish my next book And I Have The Pictures To Prove It. It’s about my wild and crazy life in Paris, New York, and Hollywood. Also my One Night Only show next year, which is a benefit for the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center. We’re bringing 27 Broadway singers from New York to do The Way We Were: Songs of the 70’s!
JS: Tell me more about the charities you support.
MC: I do a lot of charity work. I’ve raised over $12 million for charities. Performing arts charities, and AIDS charities. I’m on my 15th year of doing One Night Only. This is great fun because I love theater people, their energy and loyalty. It’s different than a film set where the day you wrap you don’t see many of those people again. Also thank you to Jet Blue my sponsor. They give us about 20 round trip tickets from JFK to Palm Springs. I couldn’t do the show without that.
To learn more about Michael Chiders:
Michael Childers on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNrm0AyASIcbFmOdd-413Rg
Link to One Night Only: